Rabbi’s hoarding of sacred junk finds a home in ‘Jew Box’

I went to throw out a blown-out light bulb today and hesitated for a moment. I always do. Blown-out light bulbs always remind me of my father. He was a rabbi and also probably had an undiagnosed case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which manifested itself most significantly through hoarding.

Being a rabbi created some interesting targets for his hoarding. Blown-out light bulbs were carefully wrapped in a brown paper bag and sealed with masking tape. Then in a black Sharpie he would write “Mazel tov!” in Hebrew. After years of performing weddings several times a year, my father knew that it’s a lot easier for the groom to smash a light bulb than a wineglass with his foot — and when the bulb is inside a paper bag, a lot less messy, as well.

He also liked to save etrogs, the large citrus fruits that are blessed during Sukkot. After the ceremony, most people throw away their etrog. Not my dad. He kept it in the little cardboard box it came in, wrapped in that luxurious golden fiber that little girls love so much because it makes awesomely long tresses for puppets. Once in a while, I would clean out the kitchen cabinet above the broom closet and would see, way in the back, a half-dozen little etrog boxes, each one containing that wonderful golden doll hair wrapped around a now brown, shriveled-up and dried-out etrog.

“Why are you saving these brown, shriveled-up and dried-out etrogim?”

“They still smell nice and I can put them in my sock drawer,” he’d answer.

He never put them in his sock drawer. He always forgot about them.

In his later years, my father was a rabbi at several synagogues, all comprised of dying congregations in towns where young Jewish people did not live. This meant he presided over few weddings and many funerals. In some cases, the departed didn’t have anyone to deal with their belongings. So, my Dad would take the stuff and put it in the basement, then the attic. Sometimes it was a lot of things, at other times it was just the sacred Jewish paraphernalia that the family didn’t know what to do with. When he moved from the house where he had lived for 35 years, we filled four boxes with the stuff.

The first box was filled to capacity with yarmulkes from weddings and bar mitzvahs, satins in a rainbow of colors, velvets in blues and purples, printed inside with things like “Mazel Tov Jeremy Kouffman April 26, 1985,” or “Wedding of Gail & Jacob Kravitz, October 24, 1993.” My father never went anywhere without a yarmulke in his pocket. He didn’t wear it all the time — just when it was required of him — but a free one? That was something he could not pass up.

The yarmulkes I knew about growing up, because there was a particular drawer in the dining room that would get filled to capacity with them. But the other collections were a secret until my sisters and I helped him pack up his house.

While we were clearing away the mounds of stuff, we

started filling up what we affectionately named the Jew Box.

“Where does this decaying tefillin go?”

“Throw it in the Jew Box.”

Jew Box No. 2 was filled to capacity with tefillin, many of them decaying from baking in the hot attic for years. My father was supposed to have buried them in a Jewish cemetery, as is the tradition, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to do this. So they sat in boxes in the attic.

Another Jew Box held the many tallitot, or prayer shawls, that he collected. There were the standard polyester ones with light blue trim, the more traditional Ashkenazi versions with black stripes, the all-white shawls of the Sephardic tradition; some were in great shape, others in various states of decay.

There also were lots and lots of tefillin and tallit bags, the small, usually velvet bags used to hold the sacred wraps and shawls. We even found an ancient embroidered tefillin bag with the date on it — 1896 — that really should have been in a museum.

And let’s not forget the scores of prayerbooks and an assortment of disintegrating bibles.

In the end, we had four Jew Boxes, and that was before we packed up his books. When my sister and I flew back to California, we instructed my Dad to deal with the Jew Boxes.

“Take them to the cemetery to be buried or donate them to charity. You don’t want to move them with you to California, right?”

“Of course, I’ll do it,” he replied.

Five years after Dad moved to the L.A. area, he died of cancer. Before then he had a wonderful time teaching Jewish history, studying Talmud with the Chabadniks and enjoying the warm weather and lack of snow. When we started cleaning out his apartment, much to our surprise, we found the Jew Boxes. He couldn’t bear to deal with them, so he moved them across the country to California.

“Good thing he wasn’t a mohel,” my sister quipped.

In the end we donated the boxes to a group of Crypto-Jews from South America who recently rediscovered their Jewish roots and needed exactly what we had.

Dad would have been proud.

Rina Neiman lives and works in Marin, where she is working on a memoir about her Israeli mother’s collection of Yemenite dresses.